5 Questions with Elisa Deener-Agus, Federation’s New Chief of Staff

The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington is pleased to welcome Elisa Deener-Agus to our professional team as our new Chief of Staff. Read on to learn more about Elisa’s background and what she’s looking forward to accomplishing in her new position.


  1. Tell us about your background. What attracted you to the role of Chief of Staff?

I began my involvement with Federation at Combined Jewish Philanthropies in Boston, as a volunteer on a task force to address day school affordability. I loved how the group of lay and professional leaders from across the community worked together to pilot & test new ideas that no single school could do alone. At the time, I was working as an immigration lawyer and found that my day job was getting in the way of this exciting work. When a staff job opened at CJP on the day school team, I figured I’d complete the one project and then go back to law… 11 years later, I have never looked back!

I am so excited about the Chief of Staff role at Federation. The three elements of the job –governance, strategic implementation, and leadership development — provide opportunities to execute a mission that has meaning and value to the community. It is a chance to work with a talented team of professionals and dedicated lay leaders to make a difference in an incredibly important Jewish community in our country.

  1. What is it about working in the Jewish communal world that you’re most passionate about?

I see our collective work as writing the next page of Jewish history. I believe deeply in the unique voice that Judaism brings to today’s challenges. Judaism pushes us to think deeply, to understand the world in nuanced ways, and to get comfortable living with tension between competing values. One of my favorite parables is of the rabbi who carried two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On one, he wrote: for my sake the world was created.” On the other, he wrote: I am but dust and ashes.” He would take out each slip of paper as necessary. A culture that pushes us to hold two truths about ourselves can also be instructive for how a community can hold multiple truths on potentially polarizing topics. This is just one example of the depth of wisdom to which our tradition gives us access as we confront the pressing issues of our modern times. It is a privilege to work in the Jewish communal world, where we partner every day with so many to bring these values, traditions, and wisdom to life in real and concrete ways.

  1. You are joining The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington at a pivotal time for our organization and our community. What do you see as our greatest opportunity?

There is so much energy within the Greater Washington Jewish community. The robust and innovative next gen organizations and programming are admired throughout the country. The historic social service and educational institutions stand as towers of excellence. There are vibrant synagogues with strong leadership. There is an understanding of, and appreciation for, the breadth of diversity in the community. And Federation’s strategic plan highlights the desire for and an approach to developing more connection at every level – leaders, organizations, families, individuals. Creating a more thickly-connected community of all of these robust elements is the greatest opportunity to ensure that all feel included and that we can tackle complex issues together.

  1. A core component of your role – and one of the key initiatives in Federation’s Strategic Plan – is leadership development to strengthen Jewish communal life in Greater Washington. Why is this work so critical, and how will our increased investment in developing leaders transform our community?

Developing and mobilizing talent, passion, and human capital are crucial for vibrant Jewish life. Investment in leadership development within the context of a local community is a powerful lever for creating a shared vision, with common language and focus. Leadership development at its best builds the relationships, trust, and vision to drive change and create the conditions for broader and deeper engagement. Bringing together the changemakers can have the effect of helping all of the excellent organizations in the community understand and define how they fit within a broader ecosystem – which provides the platform to do incredible things together.

  1. What do you like to do in your time away from the office?

My favorite thing to do is spend time with my 3 boys and husband – usually on some adventure, either hiking, or sailing, or ice skating on our homemade rink in our backyard. I also love to road bike on the weekends when the weather cooperates with a group of long-standing “biking buddies.” I’d like to say I love to cook but the truth is I much prefer to eat someone else’s good cooking!